A Farewell to Arms

Having started “Alexander Hamilton” (by Chernow), I realized I must publish my post on “A Farewell to Arms”. And that in turn means I must make a confession: my mother is much smarter than I. I realized that once before, years ago, and then forgot it, repeatedly. Being an English prof also helps her case.

I was confused. So confused! What was “A Farewell to Arms” about? I wrote an entire introductory paragraph ridiculing the title of the book, but you will not be reading that. My mother the English prof claims the title of the book is practically the best thing about the book. Why? The main character simultaneously quits the military and loses the arms of his lover. So, the title is a double whammy and I missed it entirely.

Hopefully the rest of my thoughts are more incisive, and less embarrassing.

Were I to sum up this book I would say it’s an exploration or expression of a stoic view of pain. The main character, Henry – whose name you don’t get until about four fifths of the way through the book – is an unruffled, standard yet savvy fellow. Of the American breed, who has decided to join the Italian army. So normal. And given how normal it is, you are given no explanation.

[Spoilers follow, of the most regrettable kind if you intend to read this book.]

The author tells you Henry’s story with much emphasis on what bread, cheese, or wine he was consuming and with zero transitional phrases – get ready for bumps – but also with a lovely ease. Hemingway’s lack of ornamentation is refreshing. Soon after that it’s annoying, because it goes too far. His style becomes mildly abrasive and literally hard to be follow because, believe it or not transitions exist to, uhm, transition you. Along with transitions, Hemingway has kicked nearly all human emotion out the door: the book feels flat, one dimensional, unexplored, simplistic, stiff, stilted, nearly surreal (because I can tell you my life isn’t this colorless), and lifeless.

Harsh critique, right? At the same time as being lifeless, his simple descriptions of nature, or simply of the room the characters occupy, are somehow warm, compelling, and rich. He uses simple language – appropriately complementing his simple style – and it could be that the lack of difficulty in processing his word choice, and/or the conciseness (due to lack of ornamentation), brings his descriptions great clarity and therefore emotional impact. Anyway, I remember the cold air of the Swiss mountains they hiked through, and the red velvet of the hotel room where Catherine was concerned he’d think of her as a whore.

What I mostly remember however was the lack of depth of the romantic relationship in this book. Did Ernest Hemingway have a lover or wife ever? I would truly hope it carried more life than this relationship. The conversations that Henry and Catherine have are painfully simple. They are what I imagine eighth graders might have, eighth graders who are having sex and who are in the Italian military and who have slightly Victorian ideas of romantic relationships. “Are you pleased with me? I hope you’re pleased with me.” That’s Catherine. And then so often, the other character will respond with no response to what was previously said. They just change the topic, no warning, and the other person never gets upset or confused that the topic just changed or that the other person didn’t answer their question. Stilted, swift, unfinished conversations.

You know that time that Henry has a near-death experience and bravely dives into the river out of the hands and guns of the hordes of military men surrounding him who are about to kill him, and he miraculously gets away? Well, when he finds Catherine, he shares none of this story. Normal everyday occurrence, apparently. Instead, they go directly back to their “interesting” conversations. (They actually had the first interesting thing they could have talked about!)

Negative critique aside, it was fantastic to get my first Hemingway experience, to view the European countryside of World War I, to get an eye into Godless psychology (both Henry and Catherine “have no religion” as they put it) at a time when it was a little less acceptable, and to see one author’s attempt to address a wrong: the great pain of the world. This book is dark. Bleak. Empty. It’s not that you don’t get an interesting ride on the way down, but Henry’s own military trying to kill him at the end of the book, the miscarriage of his child, and Catherine’s death in labor bring the book to a quiet, horrible, and answer-less ending. The only element I can see consistently woven through the book is unanswered pain. Henry doesn’t care for his family – this is demonstrated in how little time he thinks about his family and in his response to Catherine’s concern for Henry to update his family with the fact that he’s alive. Henry has no ties to anyone that matters. His only real tie – which feels truly superficial – is to Catherine. His love, Catherine, dies a horrible and needless death, he loses his first child, and the book ends. He walks away in the rain.

Makes for good drama. And certainly he connects with his readers because who doesn’t know pain? But for me, it’s entirely unclear what the book is about. Meaning, if you are Ernest Hemingway, why write it? If life is so bad, where do you get the energy to write a book, and more importantly, to what purpose? There is some reason to be alive for Hemingway and, in this book, I see no reflection of it. I see only stoic expression of pain, no answer to pain, and resulting bleakness.

The Unexamined Life

If you Google “blog” the first result (other than ads and Wordress) is “Seth’s Blog”. Impressive. The most successful blog in the world currently. Who is “Seth”? I looked around. It was hard to tell. I went to one of his other sites and it read “author, marketer, speaker, etc” – he speaks on “everything” – but in reading all this I realized one thing: he is a philosopher. A modern-day philosopher. We don’t have much bearing in modern society, in the sense of, we don’t really know why we’re alive or what to do with our time. I got this idea more clearly as I walked San Francisco this week, thousands of tourists brushing me by. What in the world do you do with your time? If society has already removed enough illnesses that you’re going to get past age two, and then well past age ten, and it has also created such a peaceful world that the immediate pressure of war does not give you an identity and a cause, and the urgency of finding food and protection is gone since we have done such a damn good job at, well, everything (compared to previous civilizations), then we are left with one big glaring and simultaneously unbelievable question: why am I alive? Surely it’s the question we should have always been asking, but if you’re busy just staying alive with no time to think, this is inevitable. Would Socrates be proud of us, the author of the phrase “the unexamined life is not worth living”?

Seth, in his own modern way, answers this. I say “modern” to point out the fact that he doesn’t really answer this. Instead, he addresses tactics, you know, he talks about living day to day, makes 10,000 assumptions, and doesn’t go into such messy territory as, uhm, religion. I suppose now that God is dead, and you can meet just about every need however you want, and all you really have to do is make enough money to stay alive the requisite amount of time, a transcendent emptiness descends.

I should clarify that I speak out of the Christian worldview. I have been doused in the idea that this world is not all there is, and I have been secondarily doused in the idea that most people think this world is all there is. The gap between physicalists and dualists/spiritualists is large. I don’t feel a pressure to make this world perfect. In fact, I operate under the premise that it can not be. It is the afterlife that I have sure belief in. Which makes absolutely no sense from a perspective. The “afterlife” is the thing for which I have the least proof (none to be exact) and yet I am banking on it more than anything. And second, the faith that teaches me this thought (Christianity) at one time had no knowledge of this thought. Weird, isn’t it? The Jewish worldview (from which sprang the Christian worldview) had no believe in life after death. Then along came Jesus, Paul, the pharisees, and I believe Greek thinking, and that changed.

So enough of that history lesson (mostly because my knowledge has now been depleted, not because it is no longer interesting or relevant). We are, as they say, technologically rich but spiritually poor. We do what we do very well, but no one really knows if it’s worth doing. That’s certainly getting the cart before the horse. Albert Camus once said the primary question of philosophy is whether to commit suicide. While I feel at this point the need to apologize for introducing such darkness into these thoughts, I am also absolutely compelled to say: he’s right.

Kids have to think life is about looking better (better clothes, better looking boyfriends, better iPhones, etc), feeling better (happiness, great sex, validation), and pleasure in general. This is so good (up to a point), and from my Christian worldview, so unbelievably empty. I guess I too can go running around looking for more Pokemans. But this “smallness of your world” which is created by thinking that “the value of my life is determined by whatever I want it to be determined by” has got to raise its ugly face over time. I can’t be the only one to see it. In my own life, when I pleasure-seek too much, the pleasure turns on itself, the whole thing becomes counterproductive and sick, and I go “oh, yeah, I’ve done this before, I know exactly what’s going on, there actually is more to the world than what meets the eye”, and I am comforted. (It’s one of my favorite truths about the universe which can be summed up in one of my favorite metaphors: donuts. While two donuts is better than one, and three is likely better than two, four will not better than three, and five will be worse than zero. Could depend on your usual intake of donuts…)

Donut philosophy aside, I am sad for those with no richness in their life, and there will be no richness if you truly, deeply believe that all value in your life sources itself directly in you and probably also in your friends and society. Has not humanity failed itself enough to prove what a dead end this is? A very genuine friend of mine, a coworker, told me once – in the midst of his sincerity and somewhat Eeoyre-looking facial expression – that most people were depressed, most of the time. I’ve undergone enough pain in recent years to believe this, but always there was something very real, larger, and more valuable than I at play: a transcendent truth. When you remove the transcendent, what do you have? It only looks like emptiness to me.

Pain and Friends

I got this quote from an older gentleman, and at one level, it seems like a cheap quote. But the beating heart of it is so good.

“A trouble shared is but half a care, a joy shared is a joy doubled.”

As I’ve navigated pain, this gentlemen, and his wife (both in pain), have loved me. So his words and ideas mean a lot! Even the cheap quotes, soaked in truth.

Goodness and Pain

What does it mean for God to be good and for excruciating and endless pain to exist? Should I change my view of pain? Should I change my view of good? Or, last but not least, I could change my view of God.

Good = desiring the health of the other.
Pain = not health.
God = good?

I recognize complexity plays a role. So when I talk about “the other” I am talking about 7 billion + humans. They can be  thought of individually or collectively. Both creates new problems.

Had my quiet time this morning, audio version, and the speaker encouraged the listener to rest in God’s goodness. Rest isn’t possible in the middle of pain. Pain forces the sufferer to do everything within its power to remove the pain – i.e. it forces action.

But what to do, what to believe, when nothing removes the pain?

Pain

“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.”
James Baldwin